When the church and aristocracy lost their influence

Yesterday afternoon I ventured into the Marais for one of my typically aimless walks. I like to explore back streets in particular, and never know what I will see or discover. In one of those streets I came across a mid-size museum I’d never heard of, the Cognacq-Jay.

It is among the 14 Paris museums run by the public institution known as Paris Musées. It’s billed as a museum of ‘18th century taste’, a reference to style and outlook rather than food. 

I’d never before been to a museum of ‘taste’, and most of the visitors are probably not so interested in that descriptor because it’s clear that the Cognacq-Jay’s contents are entirely paintings, sculpture and ornaments. 

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But it intrigued me, as I’m most interested in social history. I like viewing art works  not as ends in themselves but as reflections of the lives of people and sub-cultures of a given time or place. 

What distinguishes particular peoples is what they regard as being in fashion at their moment in time. That is their common taste and it is reflected in the style of their collective lives and possessions. 

When entering the museum, I thought to myself that I’m not so interested in the 18th century, as it was the 20th century that most shaped my own life and culture. But I was wrong.

I learned that the 18th century was known for the diminishing influence of the church and aristocracy as all powerful entities that dominated people’s lives. There was the rise of a middle class consisting of tradesmen, administrators and artists who were claiming a voice and power for themselves. 

These changes were reflected in the art of the portrait, which established the role of the individual’s own personality. Spontaneity and openness were dominant in the paintings and sculptures of the 18th century.

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These people were fascinated by ways of life in other parts of Europe and beyond. Some embarked on the Grand Tour, while others were taken up with exoticism or the idea of ‘elsewhere’ (e.g. India and China) and its magic and curiosities, as well as the discovery of new species.

According to notes accompanying the displays in one room, ‘The import of new exotic products such as spices, drinks and craft objects, brought about changes in consumer habits that blended European culture with imported items’.

As I see it, the church and aristocracy were not being replaced, but instead invited to play a part in the lives of the people alongside the new influences from outside. If they chose not to play ball, they would be ignored by the mainstream. 

Churches and the aristocracy can still be dismissive of taste and values other than their own, and also the blending of various spiritual and cultural influences that has become the norm. It was therefore clear to me the continuing relevance of the explosion of taste in the 18th century. 

Living austerity in Paris

Over the past few days I’ve had contact with a friend with whom I’d been out of contact for most of the past 15 years. She has been intrigued by a few life decisions I’ve made in recent years, including my decision to retire at the age of 55 and to buy a tiny five square metre room in Paris to live here for four months of the year.

I’d depicted the room as austere, and indicated that’s the way I like it ‘for the moment’.  I think she interpreted what I’d said to mean that I might have plans for a major renovation at some stage, or to use the room as a stepping stone towards the eventual purchase of something larger with more luxury.

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But the truth is that I sense I’ve reached a stage of life where I’m able to live comfortably ‘in the moment’. I like to think that I – and many of us – am already living the dream, and my particular gift is the realisation that I’m doing just that. 

I’ve learned that there’s no point in envying others. It’s likely they envy us as well. I have one friend whom I envy because he speaks perfect French. He envies me because my circumstances allowed early retirement.

I wouldn’t absolutely rule out a grander Paris living space at some time in the future, but it’s simply not on my mind.  That’s the point of living for the moment. It’s related to a mindfulness and the savouring of what is available to our senses now. 

My previous two month stay followed my taking possession of the room last October. It was taken up with emptying the room of somebody else’s ‘stuff’ and furnishing it with what I felt I needed such as a microwave, a slow cooker and a Japanese futon bed-chair.

However those things are ephemeral compared to what I’ve come to cherish as the room’s best asset other than its central geographical location. That is its position at the top and back of the building. This brightens the room with a generous amount of natural light and ensures I get a good night’s sleep despite being in the vicinity of many bars and restaurants. My Fitbit watch data tells me I’ve been sleeping eight hours on average, compared with six and a half in Sydney. 

I also feel good about being able to climb to the sixth floor many times a day without breathing more heavily than normal. It’s a constant reminder that working on my physical fitness has a purpose. 

Obviously there will be come a time in my life when this will no longer be the case. That will be another moment. But for now I am consumed by this one.

Bee emergency in Paris spring

I’ve failed to time my visits to Japan to coincide with the cherry blossoms that are out at the moment. But this week the chestnut blossoms depicted in the song April in Paris are charming both locals and visitors alike, with standing room only in the city’s parks and gardens.

Spring weather is of course variable, and this is the first week I’ve been able to cast aside the winter jacket for shorts and t-shirt. It was 28 degrees yesterday, with similar temperatures predicted until the middle of next week when it will dip ten degrees and we’ll once again be pulling our winter jackets from the wardrobe.  

Reading books in the park

It means a lot to me because I felt challenged by the sub zero temperatures and the snow in my neighbourhood on the day of my arrival on 18th March. Those who live here or visited earlier in the year had to endure floods, low temperatures and constant rain. Now it is possible to detect a definite upward swing in their spirits.

Yesterday I walked through a few parks in an effort to capture something of this mood. I’d wondered what Parisians do in springtime and thought I might see vigorous physical demonstrations of their love for each other.

But it turned out that it was the bees that were in springtime overdrive, seemingly upsetting public order by getting too excited by the blossoms. As I walked through the Luxembourg Gardens, I witnessed a bee emergency underway. 

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There was a large area roped off and teams of beekeepers in helmets and white baggy suits trying to bring the situation under control, whatever that involves. It had never occurred to me that blossoms could be the cause of such consternation.

Nevertheless visitors on the other side of the gardens near the Luxembourg Palace seemed unfazed. They were enjoying the weather chatting, reading and, of course, watching each other.

When you spend time in colder climates, you notice that the contrast of the seasons can be much more pronounced than it is in Sydney and parts of Australia further north. In my view, it’s something to be cherished.

Luxembourg Gardens

In Australia there are increasing attempts to beat seasonality, for example selling cherries imported from California in winter. I buy them although I don’t like what such availability represents.

I’ve noticed that the fruit and vegetables available in the shops in Paris tend to be those that are in season. At the moment the large white asparagus are everywhere. Next month it’s strawberries, eggplants, cucumbers, turnips and cauliflower. If you let it, seasonality brings variety in addition to the mood swings.

 

The art of making a spectacle of ourselves

I’d been wondering why many French cafés have lines of outdoor seats facing the street. I haven’t seen it elsewhere and it has seemed odd to me. 

Yesterday I realised that its purpose is to enable the café’s patrons to get a clear view of people walking along the street.

Paris caf chairs facing the street

In other cultures, people watching tends to be frowned upon. It’s seen as voyeurism, an invasion of another person’s space and privacy, or at least failing to mind your own business. But for the French, it’s celebrated as an important dimension of the interplay between human beings. 

You don’t have to have business to transact with a person in order to look at them. An active gaze at someone is a statement in response to the way that person has often deliberately projected a particular energy or visual aspect. It might lead to an exchange of words or more, but usually it’s just as fruitful if it doesn’t. 

It’s about performance and spectacle and etching yourself into the consciousness of others. To do that, something about your dress or accessories or movement needs to stand out from the crowd.

Instinctively I do the opposite, so that I blend into the crowd. It’s how I was brought up. I delude myself into thinking that I am not being people watched, and that that’s the way it should be. 

But yesterday I realised that nobody in the streets of a big city is anonymous, and that that’s a good thing. It was when a woman came up to me to express admiration of my Australian-designed Crumpler loose fabric draw string backpack. She had people watched me, and in this case it had led to a conversation, about how she might be able to buy one for herself.

Then in an art gallery, an older woman who was an attendant gazed at me. But not in a way that suggested a suspicion that I might damage or steal an artwork. There was a slight smile and a facial expression approaching awe. I interpreted it as a compliment. 

I had looked admiringly at the smart bright yellow shawl she was wearing, and perhaps she had noticed my notice of her and was reciprocating. I will never know. But it is an intriguing pleasure to wonder about it.

I think the lesson is that we don’t need to hold back when we find ourselves drawn to look at somebody who, in our estimation, stands out. They have made themselves up, precisely because they like to be looked at, and it is a source of satisfaction for them that another person has noticed them.

The French put great store in the quality of their presence in the street or at a public event. It’s almost sacramental. It’s about performance in a culture that esteems performers. 

They would not think much of parents in other cultures who admonish their children for ‘making a spectacle’ of themselves.

The act of making a spectacle of ourselves and being noticed is not an escape from reality. Instead it’s an embrace of the world, and indeed the perfect cure for melancholia, depression, and poor self-esteem.

 

The Paris district most like Sydney's Newtown

Recently my neighbour invited me to a party for his girlfriend’s birthday. He introduced me to a male friend who works on the Paris staff of an Australian based organisation. 

The friend had just returned from a visit to head office in Sydney and told me that my neighbourhood – Newtown – was the part of Sydney he most appreciated. He was even able to name the restaurant he’d dined at.

My neighbour asked him what locality in Paris is most like Newtown. The 11th arrondissement was his reply.

So I decided that I had to put the 11th arrondissement on my bucket list of places to visit before I return to Australia next month. 

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This up and coming district on the right bank is described as one of the most densely populated parts not only of Paris, but of any European city. It is known for its high concentration of fashionable cafés, restaurants and nightlife, as well as a range of boutiques and galleries. 

To most Australians, its most recognisable establishment would be – sadly – the Bataclan rock music venue, where 90 people were killed in the coordinated terrorist attack in November 2015.

I decided that yesterday was the day for my walk to the 11th arrondissement, which is 30 minutes from my room in the First arrondissement, essentially on the other side of the Marais. I set out around midday, and passed the Bataclan theatre on my way to rue de Charonne. 

My research had suggested that rue de Charonne would remind me of King Street Newtown, and it did. It’s a long street, gentrified at one end with the feel of grunge at the other. 

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There were the expected restaurants and cafés and clothes shops. But what struck me most was the number of what we call ‘old wares’ shops. They’re the businesses that sell secondhand items to people wising to give their often nondescript apartment spaces the ambience of a particular past era they like to romanticise. Romance is of course very important to Parisians.

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What topped off my comparison was rue de Charonne’s location in the vicinity of a remarkable cemetery, Le Cimetière du Père Lachaise. King Street Newtown is a few hundred metres from the historic Camperdown Cemetery, which is listed by the state Heritage Council.

The Père Lachaise, which was named after Louis XIV’s Jesuit confessor, is the largest and most visited cemetery in Paris. It is home to the graves of many famous people. In the short time I had before my return walk, I looked at the tombs of Oscar Wilde and Jim Morrison.

 

On the edge of my linguistic comfort zone

On Saturday I returned to Paris after my week in Sicily. 

I thought I would avoid the frustration of waiting up to 25 minutes for an airport bus by walking to Catania airport, which should be not much more than an hour from the city on foot. However Google Maps failed me and I found myself outside a remote and sleepy corner of the airport far from Departures, even though I had selected the ‘Departures’ option it had given me.

Luckily there was some passing traffic and I was able to attract the attention of a kind local, who drove me to Departures in good time for the boarding call.

During that moment of panic, I found myself speaking what seemed fluent Italian, to explain my situation to my new best friend and express my gratitude to him for saving me from missing my flight. 

He appeared to understand exactly what I was saying, as did others I’d had dealings with in Italian during my time in Sicily. When I arrived at the airport at the beginning of the week, the bus ticket vendor I approached for my ticket to Ragusa pointed to another booth that was not attended. 

Non c’e nessuno! was my spontaneous reaction to him (there’s nobody there).

I was proud of the language skill I did not realise I had. Like most Australians with a tenuous grip on a foreign language, I usually construct my thoughts in English before translating them into the other language.

It reminded me of my long history with the Italian language. In Year 9 at school, Father Ferruccio Romanin offered lunchtime Italian classes. I think he was the one who planted non c’e nessuno in my unconscious, where it has remained for more than 40 years.  

He gave me a good grasp of the basics, which I was able to build on later when I did a year’s Italian language at university and then a crash course much later when I went to work for the Jesuit Refugee Service in Rome at the beginning of 1997.

However despite all the effort, I never grasped the language in any serious sense. My Italian was regarded - affectionately - as a joke among my work colleagues and my fellow volunteers at the refugee hospitality centre. My tendency to translate Australian and other English idioms literally would both baffle and amuse them.

Now, in Paris, I find myself having to suppress the tendency for Italian words and phrases to come up like weeds and strangle my attempts to respond to people in French. 

Almost daily, the receptionist at the gym will greet me with ‘Ça va?’ (How’s it going?) I will either utter the Italian response ‘Bene grazie’, or spend all my mental energy trying to suppress it and not be able to find the words to respond in French.

Recently I have started to comfort myself with the existentialist thought that my grasp of language, and limited ability to acquire new language skills at my age, is what it is. In other words, it’s part of my character and personality as an Australian with good English skills venturing outside my linguistic comfort zone to explore life in foreign cultures.

Enjoying Sicilian street food

I’m with my sister and brother in law in Catania, the largest city on the east coast of Sicily. They’ve come here from their home in England’s south-east. 

She enjoys cooking, and her idea of a holiday is to take a serviced apartment near an interesting food market and use the kitchen to prepare a nice meal herself, rather than rely exclusively on restaurants.

What caught her attention at the market yesterday were the wedge clams. They’re a species of small shellfish native to the Mediterranean and Atlantic coasts of western Europe. They’re known here as telline, and are similar to pippies in Australia.

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She cooked them in a pan with garlic and olive oil and we enjoyed the dish as an entree with a glass of Sicilian rose. She was trying to reproduce part of a sensational meal we enjoyed last May at the home of a former Australian work colleague of mine outside Nîmes in the south of France. 

After returning from the market, my sister had thought she’d bought too many of the wedge clams. She was proved wrong.

These past days I’ve had in my mind the phrase ’Sicilian street food’. It’s because of a tiny cafe called Ballaro that opened late last year in King Street, Newtown, not far from my home in Sydney. The cafe describes its offering as ‘authentic Sicilian street food’. 

This includes snacks such as arancine, the deep-friend rice balls with various succulent fillings that I see everywhere around here. There are also the tubular cannoli pastries. The filling is ricotta cheese, with a generous quantity of sugar. The one I enjoyed in Ragusa had ground pistachio nuts at each end.

Perhaps the most vivid food memory I will take away with me is also the simplest. When I first arrived, I was provided with a large bowl of oranges and lemons from the garden of the parents of my airbnb host.

As I wasn’t planning to do any cooking, I wasn’t sure what I was going to do with the four or five lemons. I thought I’d squeeze a glass of orange and lemon juice, and accidentally learned that Sicilian lemons - these ones at least - are sweet enough to eat in the way we’re accustomed to consuming oranges. 

So for breakfast this morning, I bought a lemon and two oranges from a vendor in a small truck parked outside the apartment building. The oranges turned out to be blood oranges, which are currently in season. 

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This afternoon I returned and bought a bag of six of the blood oranges for a euro. Almost immediately, I sat down to eat one read about them online. They’re of the ‘tarocco’ variety that are famed for their sweetness and juiciness. As a bonus, they have the highest vitamin C content of any orange variety grown in the world, mainly on account of the fertile soil surrounding Mt Etna.

My unexpected fascination with papyrus

Yesterday I spent six hours in the south-eastern Sicilian city of Syracuse. It is the important centre of politics and culture in ancient times that Cicero described at ‘the greatest Greek city and the most beautiful of them all’.

The vast numbers of school students and tourists and buses put me off the large archaeological site I headed for in the morning. But later I was walking around the waterfront area and came across the papyrus museum, the Museo del Papiro of the Istituto Internazionale del Papiro. I was the only visitor at the time, and I found it unexpectedly engaging.

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Papyrus is the thick paper-like plant material that was used as a writing surface from ancient times. It was the medium of choice for Vatican documents until the 11th century, and was also used for baskets, ropes, boats and other artefacts, most notably among the ancient Egyptians. The museum depicts its use in African cultures until recent times.

The displays are essentially the story of the work of the local scholar and adventurer Corrado Basile, who has been to Africa many times since the 1960s to study the use of papyrus. They include three papyrus boats that he brought back from different parts of the continent and numerous other artefacts.

Its relevance to Sicily is that, aside from Africa, it is the only location in the world where papyrus grows. The most significant presence of papyrus is along the banks of the Ciane River, just a few kilometres from Syracuse. It is also an indication of the physical proximity of Sicily to Africa, where papyrus grows throughout the continent.

I’ve long had an interest in the history of publishing and media. What most fascinates me about papyrus is that it was the only medium used for the dissemination and preservation of the work of the philosophers and poets of ancient times. Without papyrus, there is so much that would be lost to us. We can compare its usefulness and influence, and perhaps notoriety, to other media such as the printing press, radio waves and the internet.

After 20 years, I've finally made it to Ragusa

Late on Saturday I arrived in the inland Sicilian city of Ragusa. With about 73,000 inhabitants, it is built on a limestone hill between two deep valleys. It is one of eight cities in Sicily’s south-east that is part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

When UNESCO put the towns on its list in 2002, it described them as ‘representing the culmination and final flowering of Baroque art in Europe’. 

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That is because they were destroyed by a large earthquake in 1693 and subsequently rebuilt in the baroque and renaissance style that was current at the time. A bit like Napier in New Zealand, which was razed by an earthquake in 1931 and rebuilt with Art Deco architecture.

Why did I choose Ragusa over the other cities, which are undoubtedly all beautiful? It’s because I’ve had it in my mind for 20 years that I wanted to visit Ragusa one day. It is the home town of a former colleague, and also a couple that I was friendly with when I lived in Rome in 1997-98.

They would talk about Ragusa with love and affection, although it was clear that they preferred to live in the big city. It seems my airbnb host Giuseppe is much the same. 

Giuseppe lives and works in Milan and his plan is to have his parents help with looking after guests. Nevertheless he was at the local bus station with his parents when they came to pick me up after I’d taken the 90 minute journey from Catania Airport on Saturday evening. I am his first airbnb guest and it seems he is determined to get things right.

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As expected, I’ve noticed many older people and not so many young people about the streets. There are empty shops, but clearly the residents have a sense of pride in their city, which is well-maintained and gradually being discovered by tourists. 

My gauge of a tourist location is how easy it is to manage in English. In Paris, I’ll ask for something in broken French and they will answer me in English. Here they are answering me in Italian. Fortunately the patchy Italian I learned many years ago has come out of hibernation after my 19 year absence from the country. 

After my ten kilometre walk around the older section of the town - mostly up and down steps - I went to the railway station to book my ticket for tomorrow’s journey to Catania, where I will spend four days. 

The train takes the scenic route, and the travelling time is over four hours. The station was deserted and slightly derelict, as I guess most locals would favour the 90 minute bus trip.

My daily demi-baguette

In Australia, one of my secrets to avoiding weight gain is no bread. When I’m in Paris, I don’t even try to stay away from baguettes. 

They are so much a part of life here. There’s always a boulangerie around the corner, and you constantly see baguettes poking out of people’s bags as they walk around the streets.

Every day I buy a half (or demi-) baguette in the late afternoon or early evening. I cut it in half and have one piece fresh with my evening meal around 8:30 and the other for breakfast, occasionally with Vegemite.

I’m careful to get it by 8:00 pm when the boulangeries close. If I miss that deadline, I will need to go to a supermarket, where the baguettes are a pale imitation of the real thing. 

The ‘real thing’ is always baked on the premises, and is often still warm when you buy it. In other countries, the word ‘artisanal’ can be slightly pretentious. But here it’s signposted outside a boulangerie as a statement of the fact that they bake on site.  

I’m lucky to live in an area where there are dozens of boulangeries. In one direction - Rue Saint Honoré - there is one about every 200 metres. I have tried most of them, and discovered that some are better than others. 

There is one that is part of a chain that makes a big deal of its Meilleure Baguette de Paris 2016 award. I prefer the next one along the street, which you need to Google to discover that it has won awards every few years since 1996.

For reasons of economy, I previously bought the basic baguette for around 50 euro cents. But one day they had only the baguette traditionnelle, which costs 10 cents more. It is not as white, has holes, and looks to be less processed are more wholesome than the cheaper one. It is certainly more satisfying, and now I always ask for the traditionnelle.

Part of my current ritual is to cut it in half with a proper bread knife, and then to break it as I consume it. I did not get a proper bread knife until last week, as I’d been trying to make do with a single chopping knife in my tiny kitchen space. But there is always room for the important things.